Don’t Feel Harmed, And You Haven’t Been

Marcus Aurelius pointed out that regardless of the severity of circumstances, there’s always a choice in how we judge them. “Choose not to be harmedand you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmedand you haven’t been,” he stated. Marcus’ instruction sounds easy, but it’s difficult to apply if we don’t understand what causes us to feel harmed and when we don’t have the wisdom to make a change. Luckily, the ancient Stoics provide this wisdom. In general, the amount of suffering that humans endure depends, for the most part, on the whims of fate. But it varies per person to what degree fate affects them. The Stoics argued again and again that someone with a robust inner faculty would suffer less than someone whose emotional well-being is entirely dependent on outside circumstances.

Some circumstances can be harmful to one person but don’t affect another. Also, many people tend to experience certain past events as hurtful for many years, while others shake off their negative experiences and don’t let the past ruin the present and future. And at least as typical are those who feel continually harmed by things that haven’t even happened yet, which may sound ridiculous, but it’s precisely what chronic worries do. It’s not the outside world and the events that take place in itour bodies includedthat hurt us, but our thoughts, memories, and fantasies regarding them. Thus, the key to resilience lies within the inner faculty, which is the only place of the human experience that we have complete control over. The philosophy of Stoicism concerns itself with strengthening the mind rather than strengthening anything outside of it, which is secondary and should have as little influence on our well-being as humanly possible. But what tools does Stoicism provide for this?

The work Meditations by Marcus Aurelius contains several ideas that shed another light on the experiences we usually consider harmful. His writings allow us to see our lives differently and change the way we think about the hardships we face, so we can be, as he wrote it, “like the rock that the waves keep crashing over.”

The pain of judgment

Marcus Aurelius called the mind the ruler of the soul. This assertion seems to be in line with Buddhist thought, as the historical Buddha stated that “nothing precedes the mind.” So, ultimately, how we think decides how we feel. For example, if we experience physical pain, we can make it worse by fighting and resisting it. We can also generate fear on top of the pain, dwelling on the idea that our pain will never end or even worsens in the future. Eventually, our thinking may cause more suffering than the bodily pain itself.

Marcus Aurelius argued that our minds should be “unstirred by agitations of the flesh – gentle and violent ones alike.” What he precisely meant by agitations of the flesh remains unclear. But it seems that this passage is about physical pain and the role of the mind in experiencing it.

The idea of injuries to the body, for example, is terrifying for most people, and we generally go to great lengths to avoid such physical pain. Unfortunately, life gives us no guarantees that we will never incur it. It’s plausible that we experience painful illnesses, accidents and become victims of violence at some point in our lives. For the most significant part, this is not in our control. But according to Marcus Aurelius, “nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure.”

Even though pain is an inevitable part of human life, we have a choice whether or not we experience additional pain on top of what the outside world imposes on us. The amount of extra pain we experience depends on our judgments. I quote: 

When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between mind and body, don’t try to resist the sensation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgments, calling it “good” or “bad.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5-26

Marcus Aurelius makes a distinction here between sensations and actual suffering. The first is natural; the mind creates the latter. He tells himself not to resist the pain itself and refrain from judging it. We could say that the sensation of pain itself isn’t necessarily suffering if we don’t consider it as something terrible but accept it as a natural phenomenon that is neither good nor bad. “Pain is inevitable suffering is optional,” so goes the saying. Or, we could say that pain in itself is bad enough; why make it worse by resisting it through judgment? I quote:

Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone—bad and good alike—is neither good nor bad. That what happens in every life—lived naturally or not—is neither natural nor unnatural.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4-39

Even though Marcus Aurelius wrote about the agitations of the flesh, we can apply his reasoning to other forms of pain as well. Whenever we feel hurt — for example, by an insult — it’s not the insult itself that hurts us but the way we judge it. Our beliefs cause our judgments. When we believe that no one has the right to insult us, then we’ll experience agitation when it happens nonetheless. But if we think that receiving insults is part of associating with humans and that we can’t control what other people do or say, we’re less likely to feel harmed by them. Marcus Aurelius stated that we don’t find harm within anyone else’s mind, not in the shifts and changes of the world. We find it in our “capacity to see it.”

Are we asking the impossible?

Some people live in continual conflict with the world around them. They seem to be affected by virtually everything they encounter: the news, the neighbors’ affairs, and what’s happening at work. Such people can’t stop complaining about what’s wrong with the world and, in extreme cases, they have convinced themselves that they’re better off dead than living in such a miserable place called Earth. If we live in continual conflict with the world, our beliefs are probably not in line with reality. In many cases, they oppose them. So, if we want to end this ongoing conflict with our environment, we have to change our beliefs. An excellent way to start is to stop asking so much of the world. In fact, in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius argues against asking the impossible, calling it a crazy thing to do.

We cannot expect what cannot be delivered. And one thing that’s certain about asking the impossible is that it’s a strategy doomed to fail. Yet, often in subtle ways, we seem to ask the impossible all the time, as we wish for things to happen in ways that are unrealistic and not aligned with the nature of the world. So-called ‘empty optimists’ are prone to this. Their optimism makes them hopeful and confident about a future when there’s hardly any ground for it. Confidence and hope aren’t bad things in themselves. But if they’re not in line with reality, then disappointment is the logical consequence.

Expecting good fortune alone is asking the impossible. Wishing never to become sick, never be insulted, never be ridiculed is asking the impossible. We have as much control over these things as a rock controls the waves crashing on it. For the mind that expects too much, life is continually at fault, as reality never satisfies. Marcus Aurelius repeatedly points to providence. From a Stoic point of view, providence means that nothing happens what nature has not intended. So, everything we perceive as defects is intentional and, therefore, exactly how it should be. Dishonest, arrogant, ungrateful, jealous, and shameless people are part of this world, just like vice, virtue, happiness, sadness, good, and evil. Wishing otherwise would be a wish against nature itself. I quote:

When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9-42

As long as there’s life, there will be illness and death. As long as there are people, there will be those with defects. Not asking the impossible means stop trying to change the universe. We can’t do it no matter how much we try. The universe always wins. If we accept this, we’ll see the value in lowering our expectations. And if we stop wanting things to happen as we wish but wish for them to happen as they do happen, is there anything left that can harm us?

Seeing the beauty in adversity

There’s beauty in decay and imperfection. We only have to look at the cracks in an old wall or the crookedness of trees, and we’ll notice that these things intrigue us. Marcus Aurelius wrote about loaves of bread split open on top in the oven and how the ridges, a by-product of baking, are pleasing and rouse the appetite. He pointed out that nature’s recklessness has its own charm. An aging face, a wrinkled apple, the ruins of a city we often consider beautiful, even though they have been subject to decay. I quote:

And so, if a man has a feeling for, and a deeper insight into the processes of the Universe, there is hardly one but will somehow appear to present itself pleasantly to him, even among mere attendant circumstances. Such a man also will feel no less pleasure in looking at the actual jaws of wild beasts than at the imitations which painters and sculptors exhibit, and he will be enabled to see in an old woman or an old man a kind of freshness and bloom (…).

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3-2

So, why don’t we treat life’s adversities the same way? Life, overall, has a rough side to it. Many things happen that don’t resemble our expectations. For example, a fiery romance between two people may arouse fantasies of a beautiful future together but may end up in a vale of tears instead. Or a promising career, backed up by significant experience in the field and various degrees, may come to an end because of illness. And even when our lives are without hardship, and everything plays out as we had hoped for, we’ll eventually end up sick and dead. So, we could spend our lives resisting the ugly and be miserable when we experience it, but it’s still part of the game. Oftentimes, it’s adversity (not prosperity) that rouses creative people like writers, filmmakers, painters, musicians, and poets, to bring about creations that attract attention.

Instead of detesting adversity, we could develop an appreciation for it, like we accept the ridges as part of the bread, as much as the bread itself. The ugly always accompanies the beautiful. And if we only want the latter and detest the former, we deny Nature as a whole. But if we learn to welcome misfortune as much as a stroke of luck, we’re less shaken when life gives us lemons. Moreover, we can almost always find some good in the worst of circumstances. Misfortune can inspire us, remind us of our fragility, change our perspective on life, and lead us to become more compassionate to others. If we see beauty in whatever overcomes us, fate will hardly ever harm us.

Focusing on ourselves

When our judgments work against us, we suffer. As outside circumstances are beyond our control, we add value to things that we don’t have power over by judging them. As a consequence, something that’s not up to us can decide how we feel. So, when something that we consider unfavorable enters our lives, we feel bad. And when something that we find desirable leaves us, we feel bad as well. The stronger our judgments are, the more vulnerable we become to the whims of Fortuna: the unpredictable Goddess of luck, chance, and fate.

But Fortuna cannot harm us unless we let her. Not letting Fortuna damage us doesn’t mean that we can, somehow, control fate. Fate will do whatever it wants, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But we do control how we position ourselves towards it. We can resist it, or we can embrace it. We can accept what Fortuna provides us with, no matter how unfortunate, or we can be angry and bitter about it, or we can see the beauty in it. When it comes to being harmed, there isn’t much we can do about the actions of those around us. But it’s entirely in our power to focus on ourselves and practice becoming more resilient to the world instead of being in conflict with it or trying to control it.

According to Marcus Aurelius, it’s not our problem when, for example, people hate or despise us, “it’s their problem.” Our task is to stay equanimous when facing these people and not being swept away by their malice. And so we can look at any misfortune that’s thrown our way. From a Stoic perspective, adversity in itself isn’t harmful to our sense of well-being. It’s only harmful if we let it be. Hence, “Choose not to be harmedand you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmedand you haven’t been.”

Thank you for watching.